Beatenberg: The three freshest faces of South African pop

We talk to South African pop band Beatenberg about playing with Mumford and Sons, girls they date and the aesthetics of Cape Town suburbia.

Image: Beatenberg Website

The nations favourite pop band comprises three smooth-skinned (somewhat gauche) young men from Cape Town, South Africa. Together they make up Beatenberg, a band who compose infectious and whimsical music interwoven with local sounds.

With Matthew Field on vocals and guitar, Robin Brink playing drums and Ross Dorkin plucking the bass these lads have released two acclaimed albums Farm photos in 2008 and The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg in 2014. They captured mainstream attention by bagging three awards for their second album at the South African Music Awards (SAMAS) in 2015. These were for album, group and best pop album of the year

Here follows a Q&A with Brink on behalf of the band.

2015 was a phenomenal year for Beatenberg. Congratulations on your awards. How are you planning to trump this success in 2016?

I guess we want to travel and work on material for a new album. We will probably take our time doing it though. It’s an important process for us and we know we can't rush into it. Obviously there’s a lot of expectations. The music will last longer than we will, so we really want it to be the best. It’s an exciting and creative process, which is really fun.

That’s good news for fans as there was quite some time between your first two albums…

I guess so. We don’t really think of the first album as something official. Back then we were teenagers.

Have you been recording anything?

It’s safe to say we’re in studio and in a creative place.

What inspired the name “Beatenberg”?

When we started, we were called “NICE”, which is a really bad name for a band. At some point Matt was paging through a book of lectures by Paul Klee the painter and he saw a drawing of a mountain called St. Beatenberg. He recalled the name some time later and all of us loved it. It’s cool, ‘cause it sounds like it could be in South Africa with the “berg” in the title. And it’s got the word ‘beat’ in it so that’s cool.

When and where was your first gig as Beatenberg?

Um, wow, there is a good chance that it was at Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town CBD. If I remember correctly, it was for a friend’s exhibition and they needed a band. This is where we announced the name change from “NICE” to Beatenberg

According to your bio you are “the fresh new faces of pop music”? How long have you guys been playing together?

About eight years now. I started playing with Matt during our Matric year. A year after that, Matt met Ross at the University of Cape Towns’ music school and clicked. We have been playing since then. I think that bio needs to change though, we’re not that “new” anymore.

Talking about Cape Town, do you have strong hometown fanbase and how often do you play shows in Cape Town?

Yes we have a strong following at home which is a great and reassuring feeling. Whenever we play it’s always sold out,  so that feels good. To to be honest I feel like we have a stronger fanbase across the country than at home. Cape Town people tend to be a bit more laid back so they aren’t going to make a big fuss about going to gig, unlike other people do in other cities where the culture is more entertainment indusrty orientated.

You’ve said that you guys are “unashamedly” a pop band. What’s you definition of pop music?

I would say our definition of pop as a genre is more like a definition of our goals as a band, our ambitions. We are looking at it as “pop” as in popular and successful. We set our goals to be as widely known and successful as possible.

It [pop] acts like an umbrella term for everything. We have tracks that are dance or house influenced and others that sound like reggae while other tracks are more emotional, it all fits under pop I guess.

We just call it pop and then we don’t really have to bother with explaining ourselves. It shows our humorous side when people might think of us as all serious and emotional.

Some have compared you to Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend with an undoubtedly “afrocentric” sound. How do you feel about such statements and comparisons?

I guess it’s mostly a compliment. If people say you sound like those artists, to me it means we might be that good. I’m really happy because those are successful and intelligent musicians. People that I respect and admire. If so then, I’m looking forward to our future as a band if we are being compared to some of the best in the world. Anything said to do with African music is a huge compliment.

We have huge respect for music from Africa. It’s so rhythmically and emotionally rich and exciting. Its not something a lot of people really try and understand, especially not other bands or at least not your general Western billboard musician. So for us, for people to think that we incorporate and use that as part of sound and musical style, then yes, it’s huge for us.

How do you guys compose and create your music?

Matt comes with an idea or melody and shares it with Ross and myself. We will then learn the parts or add what we think will work. From there we just build on a track through a long and very creative process.

Image: Beatenberg website

Your song and videos of “Rapheal”, “Chelsea Blakemore” and “Southern Sububrbs” are all set to domestic and suburban backdrops. What inspired you to make such “family friendly” music?

We went through a long stage where our aesthetics revolved around finding something rewarding and satisfying in what could be considered really boring and mundane by portraying it in a entertaining way. We are certainly not glorifying it. It’s a longer conversation than this, but it’s just a tongue-in-cheek look at suburban life. None of us are as “larney”  as it looks in the video.

Who is Chelsea Blakemore?

That’s Ross’s ex-girlfriend, so yes she is real. We are still good friends with her. Matt wrote a song about them. Making fun of them, but in a sweet way.

Your song “Pluto” with DJ Clock in 2014 was a national hit. It remained at the number one position at various stations for 19 consecutive weeks. Why would you say this track resonated with so many South Africans and how did you come about collaborating with DJ Clock?

That song was huge for us. Too incredible. That changed our lives.

I DJ, and after school I got more into playing local house music and I got obsessed with DJ clock and Professor. Someone at our record label heard about it and mentioned some people that could get in touch with these guys. A meeting was set up and we got to meet them.

It’s just a cool, catchy song that fuses different genres. So it’s cool that so many different people are into it.

You said earlier you want to tour internationally this year? Any ideas of where and when?

No dates have been confirmed but we are working towards it. We travelled Africa a while back, which had always been a dream and we really want to do that again. We played Barcelona’s biggest festival Prima Vera – it was incredible as no one knew us and people loved it. By the end of our set it was heaving. We also got called by Mumford and Sons who said they really liked us and they wanted us to tour Scotland with them so we did that which was amazing. We are touring with them again in a few weeks when they come to play South Africa.

Beatenberg will be performing at Design Indaba Festival on Friday 19 February 2016 in a once-off collaboration with Kyle Shepherd Trio. For more information and to book your tickets see our Beatenberg and Kyle Shepherd Trio event page.